Forever Ray Bradbury

June 7, 2012 — Ray Bradbury wrote that one of his most indelible Halloween memories was the October 31st he learned that his friend Federico Fellini, the famous Italian film director, had died. He wrote that "Death had lost its charm for me," and that Halloween was never the same again for him. That's how I feel about Bradbury’s death. Except replace the word "Halloween" with "Everything."

I can’t call what I feel grief. That seems too intimate an emotion to attach to somebody whom I never met. It’s more like, I don’t know, suddenly finding myself in a different dimension, one that’s mostly right but still somehow fundamentally wrong. I do know that whatever that feeling is, I feel it for selfish reasons. After all, he lived 91 full years, left behind a lush and unique legacy that every one of us can visit for the rest of our lives whenever we want, and that he was fortunate enough to be appropriately acclaimed for it within his lifetime.

I don’t mean this to be a tribute to him. The entire Internet doubled in size yesterday with those, from people much more qualified and much better positioned to give them. This post is more of an offering to the gods. Something to do because I don’t know what else to do. Maybe it’s just a goodbye.

I’ve gathered together the four articles that I’ve ever written about his work below. Two of them I wrote for my 2010 Halloween blog. There’s also a piece from the summer of 2011 where I wrote about Dandelion Wine and tried the titular drink for the first time. Finally, there’s an article from The New England Grimpendium, where I visited the towns used as setting shots for the 1983 movie adaption of his book Something Wicked This Way Comes, an entry that probably shouldn’t have been included in the Grimpendium because of the vagueness and meager use of the sites in the film, but which I put in anyway just so I could see the name “Ray Bradbury” in print because I wrote it.

All of these pieces were written with the comfortable knowledge that somewhere the time machine that was Ray Bradbury was still ticking. That I could realistically imagine him sticking a wet finger out of his window each day to test if the world was yet full enough of his inimitable gift. I guess he finally decided it was. To again steal his own words about Fellini, "His special talent I've always felt should never have been removed from the world."

I at least wish we could have had one more Halloween with him around.

Something Wicked This Way Comes...Every Year

Setpember 16, 2010 — I feel stupid writing about this book. I might as well extol the beauty of a starry sky, the merits of a loving family, the pleasures of WKRP in Cincinnati. We all already know, so I should just shut up about it.

But I can’t. Not if I’m trying to write about my Autumn season.

I don’t re-read books often. I’m an extremely slow reader, so every book I re-read is another book I will never have the time to get to. Also, it can interfere with my TV watching. However, for the past decade or so, I have read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes every Autumn. In other words, I have sacrificed entire shelves of amazing stories to reread this book.

And every time I read Something Wicked, my belief is confirmed that this is Bradbury’s penultimate work (except in those summers when I’ve read Dandelion Wine and think that to be his best).

Image by Brian Weaver

Published in 1962, Something Wicked elegantly tells the story of a pair of 13-year-old midwestern boys named Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway who encounter a dark carnival so textured, so compelling, and so full of soul peril that there should have been a 100-year moratorium placed on any other writer trying to create one, much less allowing it to transmography into the cliché that other writers have turned it into.

The story takes place about a week before Halloween, although the holiday itself doesn’t much figure into the story. Mostly, Bradbury sets his tale at that time of year to take advantage of that special shade of darkness that only the nights of late October seem to cast. The kind of darkness that has less to do with the arrangement of celestial bodies and more to do with the collected terrors, fears, regrets, and sorrows that leak from the souls of a species who not only must endure change but must endure the knowledge of having changed, as well.

Image by Brian Weaver

On one of those despair-dark nights, a mysterious and supernatural carnival, Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, steams into town. The carnival is full of Autumn People, lost and trapped souls, evil creatures, freaks of nature, all run by a fiend covered in tattoos, the eponymous Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man. As a result of this carnival and its enticements, Jim and Will are placed in a predicament that has one of them yearning to grow up faster and the other afraid to be left behind, while other, elder townsfolk attempt to recapture lost bits of their lives.

And that’s pretty much what the book’s about… the terrors of growing up and the terrors of having grown up. Children thinking they are stuck in a place they’ll never escape and older people believing they’ve been forcibly and unfairly evicted from it.

One of those adults faced with that enormous press of sunset regret is Will’s father, Charles Halloway, the janitor at the town library. When I first discovered the book, the characters of Jim and Will completely enthralled me. However, as I got older, that fascination was redirected to Charles Halloway to the point that I find his character one of the most intriguing that I’ve come across in literature. So you can keep your Hamlets, your Holden Caulfields, your Zaphod Beeblebroxes. Charles Halloway is the eyepiece I want to inspect humanity through (wait…give me back Zaphod Beeblebrox).
Image by Brian Weaver
In the end, Something Wicked fits its season. Every page is a crackling brown leaf, blown about on orchard- and bonfire-scented winds. Every bit of description is painfully evocative, extraordinarily vivid.

It’s a melancholy, bittersweet little tale, much like Autumn itself. After all, Autumn is a time of remembering, of nostalgia. It’s a time to reap the fruits of past labors. It portends the coming winter and mourns the loss of summer and spring. It’s a time when we subconsciously realize that death isn’t the horrible thing about life. Growing a year older is. In many ways, Autumn itself is that backwards-running carousel that both takes us back and terrifies us with what this way comes.

The Halloween Tree: More Bradbury than Bradbury

October 10, 2010 – You know when you were a kid at Christmas time, and your Sunday school teacher opened the Bible to the book of Luke and said, “This is what Christmas is really all about?” Or maybe it was Linus that told you, I don’t know. Well, Halloween has its holy text, too…and it doesn’t guilt you for digging Santa Claus.

In my previous post on Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, I stated with minimum equivocation that I believed it to be his greatest work. That was me wearing my objective hat (it’s soft, colorful, and divides into three limp points, each with a round dangling bell at the end). However, subjectively, his 1972 work The Halloween Tree is by far my absolute favorite Bradbury book.

Sure, part of that is because of my affinity for Halloween. Aside from the content, though, there is something about his writing in this (ostensibly children’s) book that seems, I don’t know...more Bradbury than Bradbury.

It's like he started at sentence one, "It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state," and then didn't pause, didn't edit, didn't backtrack, didn’t plot, didn’t waste time on Minesweeper until he finished up at the end with, “At two in the morning, the wind came back for more leaves.” I then imagine him throwing his glowing red pen down with a throbbing hand into a nearby bucket of water with an incredible hiss of steam and sinking back, exhausted, proud, and somewhat uncertain of what just happened. I kind of read it that way, too. Or I’m just getting so out of shape that even reading leaves me breathless.

When other people write about Halloween, it often seems like they’re just checking off tropes. “Did I mention jack-o-lanterns? Check. What about Autumn foliage? Check. Haunted house? Crap, I forgot the haunted house. Let me squeeze that in right here after the token graveyard scene.” But with The Halloween Tree, Bradbury’s treatment of Halloween is more organic, less like he’s writing about an established holiday and more like he’s creating it from scratch, from creeping pumpkin vine and stone-entombed mummy to looming harvest moon and broom-borne witch.

The book tells the story of eight costumed trick-or-treaters on a Halloween night who discover something direly wrong with one of their friends, a boy of boys by the name of Joe Pipkin. Bradbury spends a whole amazing chapter describing Pipkin (“The day Joe Pipkin was born, all the Orange Crush and Nehi soda bottles in the world fizzed over.”) that is almost worth cracking the book’s spine by itself.

The boys then encounter a sinister character named Carapace Clavacle Moundshround (“Does that have a ring, boys? Does it sound for you?”) who unfortunately seems to be Pipkin’s only hope and who leads the boys through time and cultures, dangers and terrors, showing them how the human race has dealt with darkness and death throughout history, while at the same time chasing the wan ghost of Pipkin, until eventually being asked to make a fascinating choice to save Pipkin’s “sweet Halloween candy corn soul.” It’s one of the best, most fitting story endings I’ve come across since the invention of the phrase, “The End.”

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. This isn’t one of those overtly educational kid’s stories that throws out aesthetics and art just to teach oversimplified lessons about life. In fact, more than likely the historical accuracy of the book is warped. But that’s irrelevant. So irrelevant.

Bradbury is going deeper than mere facts about history and culture in The Halloween Tree. He’s talking basic humanity here. And the most basic thing about humanity is that we die. I mean, death is as much a defining characteristic as anything else we celebrate—living, eating, loving, achieving. It’s what all cultures have in common, whether its ancient Egypt or modern-day Mexico, and each culture has its own festivals that it has used for centuries to deal with death.

In fact, Bradbury’s overarching and brilliant metaphor for our fear of death is that around this time of year, the sun goes away for longer periods of time, in the past leaving ancient man to wonder if it’s ever coming back. Because for all they knew it wouldn’t. It’s a great metaphor for death even now, where, thousands of years and billions of deaths after the advent of mankind, we still don’t know if the sun will rise again afterward.

So, once a year, we allow ourselves to get closer to the mystery of death than we are usually comfortable, clothing ourselves in nightmare, venturing out after dark, and turning fear into a play thing. For one day, we let it be okay to look death right in its scary, bony face and chuckle.

I could fill up the entire Internet discussing Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, but for this forum, in this type of space, for the amount of time I have, this’ll do. However, there are a few maintenance points about The Halloween Tree to which I’d like to attend.

First, the book also has one of the best dedications I've ever read. I’ve included a picture so that you can read it and disagree with me.

Second, you should know that every year since 2007, Disneyland in California turns one of its oak trees into a Halloween Tree dedicated to Ray Bradbury himself, who actually has a career history with the company and attended the dedication.

Besides a placard denoting the fact, Disney festoons the tree with yellow and red lights and hangs fake pumpkins from the tree branches, each one printed with jack-o-lantern faces and masks from the original 1972 Joseph Mugnaini illustrations for the book. Seeing this tree would be the only reason I’d ever spend Halloween in southern California. Well, that and this.

Finally (in more than one sense of the word), in 1993, The Halloween Tree was adapted into an animated movie written and narrated by Ray Bradbury and starring Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Moundshroud. It’s an amazing version that in some ways improves on the original, even if it does gentle it a bit, while still incorporating most of the important ideas and images of the story.

Despite what a good adaptation it is and the fact that it was awarded an Emmy, it has yet to be released on DVD. In fact, the only reason I still have a VCR in my basement is so that we can watch the cassette version of the movie every October. I’d go into more details about the film, but I still may write about it in full for this blog. However, just in case I don’t’ have time to fit it in, I wanted to at least mention it.

Now do me a favor and go heat up some cider, open up your windows to October, and start reading the book…even if you have to sacrifice reading this blog for the rest of the season to finish it. Well, still click on some of the pages for me. I could use some help with the hit count.

Reading and Drinking Dandelion Wine

July 29, 2011 — When the summer of 2011 started, my inground pool was full of black water and small animal carcasses, the interior walls of my house were sweating from the heat, and everybody I passed on the street had started to show off their bare feet like they were the prettiest things in the world. You see, I'm just not a summer guy. Especially since I’ve become an adult and had my summer breaks revoked. In fact, the only thing I really like about summer is that it means autumn’s next.

But the problem still remains that I have to deal with summer to get to autumn.

The best way I have of dealing with summer is Ray Bradbury's 1957 book, Dandelion Wine. So, to endure, and perhaps even learn to appreciate, my summer of fetid pools, wilting wallpaper, and stranger's feet, I've been enjoying Bradbury's summer of 1928.

More than that, for the first time in many, many summers of reading this story and promising myself, I finally ordered a few bottles of actual dandelion wine over the Internet. It's not made from Illinois dandelions, unfortunately, like in the book, but it is from North Dakota, so there's still Midwest soil in those thin bottles of pale gold on my counter. So, after I finished reading Bradbury’s short but densely meaningful work, I tried the titular concoction, hoping the taste wouldn’t ruin the book for me.

But first, the book itself.

The strange thing about Dandelion Wine is that it’s a book about endings. Summertime doesn’t immediately strike me as a time for that. Autumn and winter, the dying and dead seasons, certainly can be, but summer, summer always seems, not so much a beginning like spring, but a least as a continuation of sorts, that space between beginnings and endings where you’re just living. I mean, you’re sweaty and sunburnt, but you’re living. But not for Bradbury, apparently.

The book starts with an end of innocence for the main character, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding, and then goes through a layered series of endings, endings of friendships, endings of traditions, endings of lives. Heck, more people die in this nostalgia-rich story than in most horror novels. Green Town, the Illinois setting of the book, even has a serial killer prowling its streets and ravine.

Douglas’s awakening occurs on a forest trek with his father and younger brother to gather wild strawberries and fox grapes. It’s both a joyful and sinister realization. This portion of the book starts with Douglas walking through a wire of spider silk like he’s tripping a booby trap and then ends with a symbolic wound, as he digs his hands into the dark red fruit.

From there, Bradbury transitions from Douglas’s self-awareness right into the central metaphor of the book, dandelion wine. The moment that he realizes he’s alive, his first act is to help his grandfather attempt to preserve time. Each repurposed ketchup bottle of homemade and lawn-grown yellow wine is culled from that morning’s crop of dandelions and represents a day saved for savoring later. For Douglas, being aware is realizing that you’re losing. And according to Bradbury, memory is the only way we have of dealing with that loss.

But Bradbury doesn’t treat memory as completely equal to the task, though. The dandelion wine eventually is all gone, memories start to blur, the human time machine dies, the new sneakers wear out, but that’s good because there are some things you don’t want to remember, either. After all, this sunshiny book about summer has some serious blackness. The startling memory of the death of their infant sister. The serial killer named the Lonely One. Deathly illness. The darkest shadows lie beneath the shade trees of summer.

Stranger still, this book is not a dirge, despite its theme of endings, despite its many deaths, despite its darkness. Bradbury consistently pushes the idea that this is the way life is best experienced, as a series of endings, a continuum of letting go. We see that with Leo Auffmann and his Happiness Machine. Bradbury seems to be saying that we need to retire the various parts of our lives in joy like Green Town’s trolley, else we might run over somebody and find ourselves filled with remorse like in the case with Miss Fern and Miss Roberta and their Green Machine. Live and lose. Live and lose.

He goes even further. Eventually, you need to just get rid of the memories, too, like when Douglas’s family beat all the dust, all the evidence of their daily lives, out of the carpets. As Douglas’s grandfather says at the end of the book, “When the bottles are empty, the summer’s gone for good and no regrets and no sentimental trash lying about for you to stumble over forty years from now.”

Most surprisingly, even though Dandelion Wine is often characterized as a pleasant look at boyhood, we find out later in the book that it’s actually an account of a boy’s worst summer. A summer when nothing goes right for him, when he almost dies, when he loses too much. Self-consciousness is the worst thing to happen to Douglas, it seems. Fortunately, that will end at some point, as well.

Bradbury admits in his introduction, Just This Side of Byzantium, that the work is semi-autobiographical, even down to the Lonely One. So I have to figure that this book is either Bradbury bottling his own dandelion wine or actually drinking it. Makes the title that much more interesting.

Now that I’ve worked through the book, it does make sense for summer to be a time of endings. For school-age children, summer really is that way. Fall is the beginning of the school year, the beginning of a new grade, a more certain clock tick than one’s own birthday because all your friends and peers are experiencing it along with you. The school pencils that Douglas and his brother see in the shop windows at the end of the book are stakes to the heart of their previous year.

Overall, Dandelion Wine is a bittersweet book that feels more sweet than bitter as you read it, but seems more bitter than sweet when you think about it. But that’s life, I guess. You live it and it’s pretty awesome. You think about it too much and it sucks pretty bad.

Speaking of the bliss of forgetting, I’ve got to get to the wine.

The bottles I ordered were 375 mL bottles, about half the size of the regular wine bottles. Apparently it takes a lot of decapitated dandelion heads to make a drinkable amount of liquid. But the color didn’t disappoint, sunshine yellow, like lemonade. Definitely summer “caught and stoppered.”

To try dandelion wine for the first time, my wife and I set up a picnic dinner in our yard. Usually our alcohol consumption is late at night in front of the TV while watching music documentaries about decades we never experienced, but this seemed the most appropriate context to try the wine.

Now, I’m not a wine connoisseur. In fact, I’ve got fewer taste buds than a smoker with an inside-out tongue. But to me it tasted light, thin, and bright, almost like mead, but less sweet and with a bit of a vegetableness to it that turned vaguely bitter at the very end, although not sour like with white wine. Basically, good. The website for the winery that I bought it through described the taste as like “corn on the cob.”

All in all, it didn’t disappoint and both my wife and I enjoyed it enough to open a second bottle almost immediately, despite the fact that "vegetableness" and corn on the cob juice sound disgusting. If it weren’t so hard to get, I would eagerly put this into my summer rotation.

Anyway, summer is past the halfway point, my pool is now sparkling blue, my AC is winning the war inside, and we’re already seeing Halloween merchandise in the stores. People’s feet still bother me, of course, but I don’t know how to fix that.

I won’t be sad to see summer go in another month or so, but according to Bradbury, that’s fine. However, at least this year I can give the season a proper goodbye toast.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Just about every blood-drenched horror aficionado has, still surviving within them, a dark child characterized by a strong affection for the innocently spooky, and sometimes those dark children escape from their basements demanding sustenance…or else. To keep those dark children satisfied, we’ve been feeding them on a diet of Ray Bradbury literature for decades.

Disney’s 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes is notable foremost because it’s based on the Ray Bradbury classic of the same name. In fact, the screenplay for the film was also written by Bradbury, and even with the usual heaping helping of studio meddling, it still managed to be one of the darker Disney children films ever made.

In Something Wicked, a strange carnival run by a mysterious Mr. Dark comes to Green Town, IL, in early autumn, setting on course a series of events that force a pair of 12-year-old friends to quickly learn how to navigate that ominous space between carefree childhood and soul-crushing adulthood, while an aging father, whose soul has long been crushed, learns how to mount over its debris. And all of this while the three of them combat the supernatural evil that the sinister carnival hides.

Although a weak shadow of its literary inspiration, the Disney adaptation ranges from passable to delightfully Bradbury-esque in various parts, often due to the period and seasonal setting of the film. The studio custom-built the 1930s town of Green Town on a large outdoor set at Walt Disney Studios in California and then, to capture the Illinois that every Bradbury fan has visited so often in his or her imagination, shot all the establishing exteriors in…New England.

Still, they did shoot those exteriors in the autumn, and a New England autumn can be absolutely Bradbury-esque, as well. The establishing shots were all filmed in northern Vermont, in the rural areas of Waterville, Morrisville, and Jeffersonville. Unfortunately, the film makers often combined those shots with matte paintings, so it’s difficult to determine exactly where the shots were taken. Although that’s not much of a New England connection to include in this chapter, Something Wicked is the only chance I've got to invoke Ray Bradbury in this book, and that’s just something I really wanted to do.

Waterville, Morrisville, and Jeffersonville are all located near one another, right above the more famous Vermont town of Stowe. As a result, regardless of the movie that featured them, they make for a fantastic autumn road trip full of soft hills covered in colorful foliage, quaint towns with bright white churches in their centers, farm stands with autumn delectables, and everything else you need for the season.

It might seem kind of strange that in putting together a book filled with horror, atrocity, and morbidity like the one you’re now reading, I’m featuring two Disney films made for children. Truth is, when it allows itself to access it, Disney has a pretty deep dark streak somewhere underneath all that fairy dust and princess solos.

Of course, the other movie I’m referring to is Hocus Pocus, which actually isn’t really all that dark in comparison with Something Wicked, and I’m sure you’ve already skipped over that entry for more interesting ones. That’s okay. Something Wicked, though, you’re going to want to re-watch it, whether you have dark children of your own to share it with these days or you still must keep your inner one fed.